Reflection composed on Chanukah while in Israel a few years ago. The idea remains as relevant as ever.
I am sitting at the Western Wall plaza after midnight and less than 24 hours before kindling the second flame of Chanukah. The sound of prayer and learning echo off the walls and a serene peace fills the cool air. A menorah stands ready to be lit at the center of the plaza adjacent to the ancient and holy stones.
What illumination will the first night convey? How will we grow through the flame?
When you light the second flame, contemplate whether we remain victorious over the ancient Greeks. The celebration of Chanukah is not simply a historic commemoration but a reengagement with the timeless touchstones of Judaism.
Let us explore one of the touchstones….
The Greeks prohibited the Jewish people from learning Torah. They did not threaten the Jew physically but rather spiritually. They understood the power of the Torah to anchor and guide our live and sustain our future. Do we value Torah in the same way? Do we view study of Torah as any other book of wisdom or as a tree of life?
Since arriving in Israel, I have witnessed images of the flame of the living Torah. Each one symbolizes the victory we experience TODAY.
First, we are studying at Yeshiva Bircas Reuven in the old city, an institution driven to engage people in the conversation of Torah. Each person spends hours studying with a partner in an animated repartee of questions, answers, proofs and refutations. Who knew the study of Torah could be so exciting, stimulating and meaningful?
I visited my daughter Sara Malka who is studying this year at Shaalvim for Women in Jerusalem. In a presentation on Chanukah to the school, I spoke about the portable light of Torah serving as our guide outside the walls of our schools and houses of worship. Do we take the Torah on the road or leave it in the ark?
Following dinner with her and a few friends, I had the merit to learn with Sara Malka and a friend about the coming week’s Torah portion. I took a back seat and experienced such joy as they plumbed the depths of the text asking penetrating questions and seeking some answers.
Finally, we visited Bnai Brak for a Torah tour. Many of us are familiar with this city from the story in the Passover Hagadah of the rabbis who shared the story of the Exodus all night long. Today, the city serves as a symbol of the flame of the living Torah. We visited Rabbi Beryl Povarsky, one of the leaders of the legendary Ponevitzh Yeshivah, who spoke of the power of Torah to sustain the Jewish people. At night, we visited the cemetery in Bnai Brak. As we heard of the leadership of the Chazon Ish to gather the sparks of Torah following the Holocaust and revitalize Torah in Israel, the echoes of young children singing words of Torah wafted through the air. As we finished the evening service moments before leaving the cemetery, we visited the grave of Rabbi Shach, another Torah giant, and met his grandson and great granddaughter on the evening before her wedding.
This evening, we can declare victory over the ancient Greeks. The Torah is alive in the hearts of the Jewish people. However, we are called upon to fuel the flame in our own lives this year.
When we light tonight, spend a moment meditating on the following: How can I and my family deepen my engagement with Torah study? How can I find a few more minutes every day to study Torah and insure its vitality in my life? If I were alive during the time of Chanukah, would I fight for the right to study Torah?
We all learned the Torah in the womb prior to entering this world. Although we do not remember all of the teachings, deep inside there is a wellspring waiting to burst forth into our lives.
May the third flame tonight ignite our passion for Torah. Whether in Bnai Brak, Jerusalem, Stamford, or anywhere in the world, the power of the Torah links us to our past and rejuvenates our future.
Wishing you and your families a happy Chanukah!
Rabbi Daniel Cohen